Christina Patterson: If even a Nobel laureate isn't allowed to speak out, then who is?

Grass is right to say the West's attitude to Israel's nuclear arsenal involves an awful lot of hypocrisy

Share

"It is difficult," said the American poet William Carlos Williams, "to get the news from poems." In a normal week, he'd be right. In a normal week, you'd be quite lucky, at least in the Western world, to find a poem that talked about what was happening in the news, and you'd be quite lucky to find anyone, outside a classroom, or a poetry group, talking about it if it did. But this week, a poem was the news. And it didn't go down all that well.

Günter Grass's poem, "What Must Be Said", which was published in a German newspaper last week, hasn't gone down well with critics, or journalists, or politicians. It hasn't gone down well with German politicians, who have called it "abominable", and "over the top", and "irritating". And it hasn't gone down well with Israeli politicians, who have decided not to pretend they're literary critics, but focus, instead on the content. Which, it's clear, they didn't like.

"His declarations," said Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, "are ignorant and shameful, and every honest person in the world must condemn them." It was, said the Israeli embassy in Berlin, "a European tradition to accuse the Jews before the Passover festival of ritual murder". It was, said Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, an example of the "egoism of so-called Western intellectuals who are willing to sacrifice the Jewish people on the altar of crazy anti-Semites for a second time, just to sell a few more books or gain recognition."

It's possible, of course, that Günter Grass, who is Germany's most famous living writer, and who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999, feels he isn't famous enough. It's possible that he wrote his poem, about the balance of nuclear power in the Middle East, because he felt he hadn't sold quite enough books, and might not have all that many more years left to sell more. It's possible that he thought that the best way to celebrate Easter, in his 85th year, was to wreck the reputation he'd spent a lifetime building up, and get himself branded an anti-Semite. But it's also possible that he didn't.

It is, for example, possible that when he asked, in the poem, why he had "stayed silent" for so long about the "hypocrisy of the West" in relation to the Middle East, and why he had "forbidden" himself to name the country whose nuclear weapons he regarded as a threat to world peace, he was actually asking himself why he had stayed silent. It's possible that when he said he hadn't spoken out before because he came from a country with "a stain" on its history that was "never to be expunged", and knew that if he did speak out he would be called an anti-Semite, what he meant was that he didn't particularly want to be called an anti-Semite. And not that he did.

And it's possible that when he said that he had decided to speak out anyway, because he was old and might not have many more opportunities, and because he thought that Germans, already "burdened" with a terrible past, might be "complicit" in future horrors if they didn't, that is exactly what he meant.

Is it a good poem? Well, that, for those of us who don't speak German, is hard to tell. "Poetry," said the American poet Robert Frost, "is what gets lost in translation", and it certainly gets lost in the kind of translations that are done to meet a newspaper deadline. A good poem can take weeks, or months, to write. A good translation takes exactly the same. The translations I've read of this poem aren't likely to win anyone a Nobel Prize. But they also don't make it sound like a mad rant. They make it sound, in fact, like an agonised, if rather heavy-handed, meditation.

And is it, as the critics have implied, simplistic and naive? Does it, as so many angry people have said, imply that Israel and Iran are "morally equivalent"? Well, actually, no. Iran, says Grass in the poem, is a country "enslaved by a loudmouth... and guided to organised jubilation", which aren't really the words of a fan. Grass doesn't talk about Israel's leader, or its illegal "settlements". But he does say that Israel has been allowed to stockpile nuclear weapons without any inspections from anyone, and that Iran, which wants to, hasn't. Which, even angry Israelis would have to admit, is true.

Günter Grass may or may not be right to say, in his poem, that Israel's nuclear weapons are a threat to world peace. But he's certainly right to say that the West's attitude to Israel, and its nuclear arsenal, involves an awful lot of hypocrisy. He's right to say that Germans don't dare speak out about this, and he's right to suggest that if Israel decides to take some pre-emptive action against Iran, innocent civilians will be killed. And it's hard to see why he's wrong to hope that speaking out will "free many from silence", and prompt Israel to "renounce violence".

If a Nobel prizewinner can't express a political opinion, it's hard to see who can. Grass, it's true, has a "stain" of his own. He was, he revealed in a memoir six years ago, conscripted as a 17-year-old into the SS. But conscription, as many young Israelis will tell you, isn't the same as choice. It also means that you may well learn more than you'll ever want about the terrible realities of war.

In Syria, people who don't like their government are being gunned down on the streets. In Bahrain, they're being tortured, and locked up. In Germany, because it lost the war that wanted to turn the whole world into a fascist state, you're free to say what you like. You're free to criticise your government, and the governments of other countries, even if it's breaking a taboo. And even if it seems to make everyone around you go mad.

In Israel, you're meant to be free to say what you like, but if you're not Jewish, and you criticise the policies of the Israeli government, you're likely to be called an anti-Semite. And you are, it seems, because this is what the Israeli government has just done to Günter Grass, quite likely to be banned from the country.

It would have been better all round if Grass's poem had been better. Unfortunately, great writers can't produce great art all the time. But Günter Grass has produced at least one great work of art. It's called The Tin Drum. It's about, in as far as you can sum up what any novel is about, the power of art to defeat war.

It may be a bit naive to think art can defeat war, or that a poem can make a government change its mind. But a poem, like a novel, or a play, can make people think. If enough people change their views, then maybe governments – even the ones who say they believe in freedom of speech, but make it clear from their actions that they don't – will change theirs too.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/@queenchristina_

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: Full Stack Software Developer

£35k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Opilio Recruitment: Senior Developer

£50k - 60k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We have an exciting Seni...

Opilio Recruitment: Senior Front End Developer

£50k - 70k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We have an exciting Seni...

Opilio Recruitment: Senior Digital Designer

£50k - 55k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An exciting opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Buy from Amazon and Apple and it’s you that ends up owned

Boyd Tonkin
Hughes in Durban in 2009, celebrating the first of his two centuries in the second Test against South Africa  

Sport will always be risky – we must accept that, even in the wake of the tragic death of Phillip Hughes

Rosie Millard
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game